Dialogue: Acts 9:40 and Prayers for (not to) the Dead

Dialogue: Acts 9:40 and Prayers for (not to) the Dead November 11, 2020

Luke Wayne has been a writer and researcher for the large Protestant online forum CARM since January of 2016. He is an elder at the Mission Church in South Jordan, Utah and holds a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist College and a Masters in Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I’m responding to his article, “Does Acts 9:40 support praying to dead saints?” Luke’s words will be in blue.


Acts 9:40 (RSV) But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.

No, Acts 9:40 does not in any way support the practice of praying to dead saints. . . . it is not even remotely related to the idea of praying to dead saints.

I’m not sure that Catholics very often argue (if at all) that the passage establishes this. Perhaps that’s why Luke doesn’t cite any Catholic actually making the argument he claims that we make. It is used, however, as a biblical proof of prayer for the dead, and of the notion of permissible contact with the dead in general (since Peter directly spoke to a dead person and commanded this dead girl to “rise”).

Peter prays before directing his words toward the girl. He is clearly praying to God. He is not praying to the girl to raise herself. . . . Being dead, she is the one in need of help, . . . 

Exactly! He’s praying to God on behalf of the dead: that this particular dead person would be raised: one of the things many (not all) Protestants claim is unbiblical and can never be done.

The argument is that, when Peter says, “Tabitha, arise,” he is speaking to a dead girl and expecting her to hear him and respond.

In other words, he is doing a thing that many Protestants (especially of the Reformed / Calvinist variety) claim is absolutely forbidden in the Bible: all contact with the dead whatsoever. So, for example, Reformed Baptist James White: one of the foremost critics of Catholicism writing today, argued in a review of my book, The One-Minute Apologist, dated 6-19-07:

[T]he prohibition of contact with the dead is specifically in the context of people living on earth seeking to have contact with those who have “passed from this world”! This kind of argumentation leaves the prohibition of contact with the dead meaningless and undefined. (italics his own)

Peter had “contact with the dead” in talking to the dead person Tabitha and commanding her to rise. This is what White claims is prohibited in the Bible. And this is what the passage proves that is contrary to at least White’s brand of Protestantism (and, I think Luke’s [some sort of] Baptist theology, too). Why, then, is Peter doing it? The surrounding biblical text doesn’t condemn him for doing so. See also my paper, “Does God Forbid All Contact with the Dead?”

Jesus raised others through verbal commands as well.

Luke gives the example of Lazarus, which is another example of praying for the dead. Lazarus was dead / Jesus prayed for him / Thus, Jesus [an example to and model for us] prayed for the dead. Jesus talked to / payed for another young man in Luke 7:14-15.

There is no sense whatsoever in which these passages represent prayers to the dead.

We fully agree. They represent prayer for the dead and contact with the dead: two things that many if not most Protestants forbid and claim to be things forbidden by Holy Scripture.

When prayer does feature in such stories, it is always prayer to God, never to any dead intermediaries.

Actually, in a story told by Jesus about Lazarus and the rich man, who are both in Hades (Sheol), the rich man prays to Abraham, not God. So if this is bad theology, then Jesus Himself was in serious error. Apparently Our Lord would have flunked out of Protestant seminary.

The very fact that Roman Catholics feel they need to turn to strained connections like this to argue their point illustrates how alien such practices are to churches of the New Testament.

We don’t. It’s the case, rather, that Luke is caricaturing good solid Catholic biblical arguments and fighting a straw man. As one who has used this passage and similar ones in a published book (The Catholic Verses), I would know how Catholic apologists use the passage. I did as follows:

[I]t seems utterly indisputable that here St. Peter literally prayed for a dead person, as far as that goes. When the Bible tells us that he “prayed,” it was obviously for the purpose of bringing her back to life (and she was dead when he prayed it). It’s possible also that he might have prayed something like, “Lord, if it be your will to keep her, so be it; your will be done, but if she can be brought back to her grieving family . . . “ Either way, he is undeniably praying for a dead person, which Protestants say is not permitted, and supposedly not recorded in the Bible. . . .

Protestants would no doubt argue in reply that this was the Lord Jesus and an even more unique case, but we are commanded to imitate Him (including in prayer; e.g., the Lord’s Prayer), and it remains an example of prayer for the dead. The Bible informs us that the disciples raised people from the dead (Mt 11:5, Lk 7:22) and that Jesus told them that they would be able to, and should, do so (Mt 10:8). So they went out and did it, with (presumably) the use of prayer for that end. Thus, they prayed for the dead. We have an example of Peter doing just that. . . .

If dead saints are not too far “out of reach” to be prayed for and raised from the dead back to earthly life, then I submit that they aren’t too distant for us to pray for their souls while in purgatory (assuming – as Catholics do on several biblical grounds – that there is such a thing). . . .

[John] Calvin . . . directed the reader (and jogged my own memory) to yet another biblical account of prayers for the dead: that of Elijah, as recorded in 1 Kings 17:17-24:

Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.’ And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. ([Commentaries] 17:21-22)

. . . Until someone can explain to me how it is possible to pray to raise a person from the dead without simultaneously praying for the dead (i.e., that same dead person), then I will insist henceforth that the practice of praying for the dead is explicitly taught and shown by literal example in both Testaments.

Further related reading:

New (?) Biblical Argument in Favor of Prayers for the Dead


Photo credit: The widow’s son ecstatically returns to life in response to Elijah’s prayer. Wood engraving. [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license]


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